|When Religion Fails, God Remains by Deborah Arocho (January 10, 2005)|
“If you leave the church, your life will forever be empty.” So many times I heard those words, so many years I believed them. But does religion truly hold the answer to all questions? Does it fill every emotional void? I discovered the truth to this universal enigma at a time when my life literally depended on it.
I was born to a poor Puerto Rican couple in Harlem, New York in the early 60’s. Challenges already awaited me upon my arrival. With an abusive alcoholic for a father and a battered woman for a mother, my life quickly became another unfortunate statistic. As early as age three I remember living in a home plagued by domestic abuse and fear. At age seven my dream was not to grow up and be successful, but to make enough money to pay my family’s bills. While girls my age played with dollhouses, my favorite toy was “play” money and for hours I would sit and pretend to have all the finances I needed to keep a roof over my head and enough food to eat.
At age eleven I became active in my mother’s church. I had been dedicated to God as an infant and church had always been a vital part of my life. At age twelve I was baptized by a Pentecostal pastor, and quickly incorporated myself full force into church leadership. At fourteen I was a preacher, Sunday School teacher, and vice-president of the church youth group. While total chaos reigned in my home, I found refuge and hope in the only institution I felt could never fail me.
At age seventeen my family and I experienced a tragedy that would change our lives forever. Just one month away from his seventeenth birthday, my younger brother Danny died suddenly of respiratory failure. His death was unexpected & unexplainable. My parents found themselves in a darkness too deep to escape, and too hopeless to fight. They were too devastated to face the realities ahead. It was then that our Senior Pastor stepped in to carry us through this emotional wilderness. He was a charismatic, young man who had been with our congregation for less than a year, but had quickly earned the love and trust of our family. That trust became even stronger as this man of God took full responsibility for us as he made phone calls, arranged for the funeral, and even provided the suit my brother Danny would be buried in. In the days following the funeral our Pastor helped my parents prepare for my transition into college, and the reality that our home would have no more children. This man became my hero and best friend. I found myself confiding in him more and more. I was comfortable sharing anything with him. I had found the father figure I desperately needed, which made the future events all the more painful for me.
One afternoon in my home, my Pastor sexually abused me. I felt totally confused and afraid. I knew what had happened, but I could not believe it was true. Imagine yourself in a dream you cannot escape, and you are wondering if what you are feeling is real or not. Then you will understand in part what I was feeling that day. I felt wrong, and I made it known. I reminded my Pastor that he was a husband and father, and what he was doing was a sin according to God’s Word. My Pastor tried to “reassure” me that nothing wrong had happened, that God was not displeased but in fact had blessed him with a new chance at happiness, and I was that chance. I was to trust him wholeheartedly, and he would take care of me from that moment on. I was too afraid to share any of this with my family. My father had quit drinking shortly before Danny’s death, and had remained sober throughout the early days of the tragedy. I feared this event would throw him and the rest of the family into another dark time. I knew my mother would be very angry with me, and perhaps would not understand how I could allow this to happen. So the secret stayed with me, as did this dysfunctional relationship with my Pastor. The abuse continued for close to a year, and during that entire time I never went out on a date with a boy, never knew how it felt to have healthy friendships. This man had total control of my life, my thoughts, and my emotions.
Many people ask why those being sexually abused do not have the common sense to stop the abuse from happening. It is not that simple. Regardless of our age at the time, those of us who have endured this ordeal know too well the power of psychological influence. The abuser will prey on victims who are too vulnerable to fight back, and therefore will succeed in gaining full control of the situation.
My abuser eventually disappeared from my life, but my greatest challenges were just beginning. The church terminated the Senior Pastor for insubordination, and soon after I found myself in a room with the church Board, sharing in detail what had transpired in the previous months of my life. I went into that dreaded meeting hoping that those I had grown to love and respect as my spiritual parents would have the desire and power to heal me and make everything the way it was before. I was asked many questions and at times confronted on my role in the ordeal. I was asked point blank if the Senior Pastor had committed rape. I said no. I was then asked how I could make claims of abuse. I replied that the man of God did not have to use force of any kind, he already had full control of my life-soul, body and mind. The Board pondered on the issue, and came up with a solution they felt was the most appropriate. In the absence of any evidence of rape, I would confess to the sin of adultery and seek God’s forgiveness and restoration. I felt that familiar feeling of confusion, but I still decided to trust my spiritual parents. They knew what was best for me, whether I understood their methods or not. I agreed, and formally confessed to the church Board my sin of adultery. Following my “confession,” I was stripped of all my responsibilities and privileges in the church. For the next six to nine months, I was not allowed to preach, read scripture, lead worship services, teach Sunday School, or participate with the youth group. Upon serving my disciplinary period, I was reinstated into full church membership and told to move on and forget what had happened.
I did not forget. Instead I came back a different person. I was bitter, hateful, and mistrusting. I continued to obey my church leadership in everything I was instructed to do, but my heart was far from it all. At age twenty-one I embarked on a two-year mission to South America, two wonderful and unforgettable years. But once I was back home, the bitterness and hatred resurfaced. I decided never to trust another Christian leader again, and to live my life however I wanted to. I engaged in relationships where I made sure I hurt the other person before they could hurt me. I entered into a marriage that was doomed from the beginning, and when it ended three years later, I shook my fist at God for letting it happen.
What happened next was the turning point of my life, the joy after the mourning. I suddenly found myself in a place I call the Desert of Divorce. There no one came to rescue me, no one came to ask questions, no one but God. In that place I realized that my entire life I had built a relationship with religion and the church, but I had never sought a relationship with God Himself. Yes, He had always been God, Creator, but never my Father. I now felt Him asking me if I would allow Him to be just that. In return He would keep me warm and safe, and my life would have purpose. Would I trust Him? I wish I could say I jumped at the chance of finally having inner peace, but I was too bruised to even look up. I finally did one day, and found myself face to face with the most awesome Father anyone could ever dream of having.
The years that followed were difficult, but with time I discovered new hopes, new dreams, new reasons to smile at each new day. I learned to poke fun at myself and laugh when things did not go as planned. I learned to forgive my parents for not being able to protect me from the dangers I faced. Today we share an awesome relationship of love and honesty. I learned to forgive the church leaders, my spiritual parents, for failing to heal and nurture my broken spirit. The greatest miracle of all, is that I forgave my abuser for betraying my love and trust. I let go of the heavy burden of hatred and bitterness, and the smile I had lost all those years brightened my face once again.
What did I learn from this experience? I learned that the church is an important institution in my life, and that true religion is, according to St. James “to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” The most important lesson I learned, is that the only way to a fulfilled and purpose-driven life is a close relationship with God Himself, where He becomes more than a Creator and Master, but also a loving Father. Having those blessings in my life, I am now rich beyond my wildest dreams….
[END OF STORY]
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